Cliff Beasts 6 isn’t a real movie, but the sentiment behind the fictional blockbuster at the center of Judd Apatow’s pandemic comedy, The Bubble, certainly feels authentic. Dubbed the 23rd-highest-grossing franchise — placing it somewhere among the likes of the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and the Mission: Impossible films (1996- ) — Cliff Beasts serves as a parody of that kind of soulless, CGI-laden, post-apocalyptic genre filmmaking that defines so many blockbusters today. As ridiculous as its titular beasts look and as awful as the dialogue so often is, the franchise doesn’t look that far off from the kind of $100 million junk heaps that litter the multiplex. The film-within-the-film is such an incisive spoof that it’s a shame the rest of The Bubble can’t be just as sharp.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic — sometime in summer 2020, based on a once-topical throwaway line or two that, although no longer relevant, clues the audience in to a particular time and place in the not-too-distant past — Hollywood’s movers and shakers have decided that what the weary world needs now is another entry in the Cliff Beasts franchise. Former female lead Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan) isn’t so sure she wants to return, however. After leaving the series between the fourth and fifth films to pursue new ventures (only for said ventures to flop), Cobb is only willing to return to the Cliff Beasts universe if her longtime co-stars will have her again. She won’t fight for a seat at the table if they won’t let bygones be bygones. Her agent (Rob Delaney) convinces her to give it a shot, and she reluctantly agrees to head to England for a lengthy “bubble” shoot — in other words, no one comes on or off the set to protect the safety of the cast and crew.
After a grueling two-week quarantine in her hotel room, Cobb and her castmates are eager to get to work. This go-round, she’ll be acting alongside franchise veterans Dustin Mulray (David Duchovny), Lauren Van Chance (Leslie Mann), and Sean Knox (Keegan-Michael Key), plus newcomers Dieter Bravo (Pedro Pascal), Howie Frangopolous (Guz Khan), and Krystal Kris (Iris Apatow). For this sixth film, the studio has poached, er, hired director Darren Eigan (Fred Armisen) right out of the Sundance Film Festival, and he’s been given a nine-figure budget for his sophomore effort, after shooting his first feature on an iPhone 6 while on the clock at Home Depot.
As to be expected, the Cliff Beasts Covid shoot quickly descends into chaos. Director and co-writer Judd Apatow mines from a long list of reasons why a set might need to shut down during a pandemic, ranging from positive test scares to flu outbreaks to violation of on-set safety protocols, all of which drag out the shoot more than twice as long as initially planned. Whether it be the virus that rages on in the real world outside their bubble, the increasing tensions between cast and crew that grow more pronounced by the day, or the simple fact that the film is obviously terrible (even by Cliff Beasts’ already-low standards), it doesn’t take long for Cobb and her colleagues to reach their collective wit’s end. They see two options: Hunker down and finish the film with no end in sight, or fight back against the oppressive overreach of the studio heads and free themselves from their disastrous disaster movie.
It’s 2022, and Covid comedy is a burgeoning subgenre whether moviegoers are ready for it or not. Television episodes shot over Zoom and one-location quarantine films conceived on the fly started to pop up surprisingly fast after the onset of the virus, and they haven’t slowed their roll as set restrictions have eased with the advent of rapid tests and vaccines. All of this is to say that The Bubble is not the first of its kind, and it surely won’t be the last. That’s no excuse for just how tedious and unfunny it all is, though. Apatow — a bonafide hitmaker who has more or less defined 21st-century studio comedy as a writer, director, and producer — is so much brighter than the cheap, low-hanging fruit that makes up much of The Bubble. How could one of the smartest minds behind several of the most iconic comedies of the past two decades think that a character simply saying the words “social distancing!” could pass for some sort of acerbic punchline?
It’s a bummer that The Bubble gets so bogged down by its relentless attempts at relevancy, because anything that’s not trying to extract humor from the Covid-19 pandemic is actually quite promising. Existing somewhere between Hearts of Darkness (1991), Tropic Thunder (2008), and This Is the End (2013), the bare bones of The Bubble aren’t all that bad. In the 14 years since director Ben Stiller and writer Etan Cohen nailed the most absurd aspects of blockbuster filmmaking with Thunder, IP-minded franchise filmmaking has completely taken over the Hollywood studio system. Other targets include the fame-hungry, zero-charisma leads and the fresh-out-of-film-school writers and directors who are willing to sacrifice their artistic integrity for a sizable check and a leg up in the industry. Apatow had an unmissable opportunity to tackle this phenomenon in the same vein as Stiller and Cohen’s cult classic, but he squanders it with some of the least funny material he’s ever committed to screen.
The final 15 minutes or so of The Bubble give viewers a glimpse at what could have been: Forgoing all the jokes about face masks and nose swabs, Apatow and co-writer Pam Brady craft a clever, lively conclusion that feels fresher and more inspired than anything in the hour and 45 minutes (!) that precede it. This is where the Apatow that audiences know really shines through. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007) have stood the test of time for the way they elevate the frat-pack stoner comedy subgenre that defined the ’90s and give it some real depth and intelligence. With The Bubble, Apatow seems to have forgotten this key element. As a result, it’s no better than the wearisome franchises it seeks to mock in the first place.
The Bubble will be available to stream from Netflix on Apr. 1.